Conflict Avoidance: It Doesn’t Make the Problem Go Away

People who withdraw in response to conflict think they’re better than the yellers, because they feel they’re not as “aggressive.” As I said in this blog post, that’s blatantly untrue! Responding passively–which is the go-to for many introverts–is just as damaging to your work relationships as being sarcastic or throwing something across the room.

Businesswoman arguing with a colleague

What Is Conflict Avoidance?

First, let’s define conflict avoidance: It’s a method of dealing with conflict—a conscious choice—to not directly address the problem at hand. The “problem” is any situation in which people have apparently incompatible interests, goals, principles, or feelings.
 
(Note the emphasis on apparent, meaning there might not actually be incompatibility. You’re assuming there is conflict and acting accordingly. Maybe you should check it out with the other person first?)

Why Do You Avoid Conflict?

People avoid conflict for a number of different reasons, and sometimes many reasons at once. Perhaps you avoid conflict because you want to be liked and accepted, and you think ignoring the conflict, or hiding your true feelings, is the way to achieve that goal. Or maybe you want things to be peaceful, quiet, and stable. So you pretend there is no problem.
 
You may be terrified of conflict. If you were raised in a violent or abusive environment or have suffered other trauma, conflict can seem intolerable. You feel paralyzed, numb, or overwhelmed by fear or anxiety when conflict arises.
You may be a thinker and need time to process. It’s fine to take some time and not respond right away, especially if you’re triggered or angry. But it’s not okay as a permanent solution.
 
All of your feelings are legitimate, and you need to be aware of and acknowledge them to yourself. Then, you have to buck up and learn how to deal with conflict anyway. Why? Because when you avoid, you’re actually making it worse for yourself in the end!

The Consequences of Conflict Avoidance

When you engage in the behaviors of avoiding, yielding, hiding your emotions, and self-criticizing, you’re doing nothing to solve the problem at hand. Looking the other way, or blaming yourself, instead of directly addressing the problem, leaves the conflict sitting in the middle of the room, like the proverbial elephant. Let’s list the consequences:

  1. Good people walk out the door. They’re tired of you ignoring problems, and they can’t take it anymore! You’ve created a dysfunctional environment that they can’t tolerate, so they leave.
  2. Your boss, teammates, or subordinates mistake your avoidance for acquiescence. You don’t say anything, which, in their minds, is the equivalent of, “Okay, let’s move forward!” when you’re really not on board at all.
  3. Because you refuse to state your real thoughts and feelings, people make them up on your behalf. They often misinterpret your intentions completely. This doesn’t feel good for you or them, and it makes the situation more tense.
  4. People who want to solve the conflict will pursue you even more. This pattern of avoid-pursue-avoid-pursue leaves everyone exhausted, confused, and even frightened. (“She won’t talk to me. Am I going to get fired?”)

What to Do Instead

Here are some suggestions for how to start replacing your destructive, passive responses with more constructive ones.

If you avoid conflict:

Unhelpful Behavior
Changing the subject
Better Choice
Acknowledge what the other person is saying by repeating it back to her. “So what I hear you saying is…”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Refusing to make eye contact
Better Choice
Look directly in the person’s eyes when you pass each other, when you speak, and when he speaks to you.
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Going out of your way to avoid interaction
Better Choice
Keep your office door open. Go through your normal routine. Make an appointment to meet.
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Walking away
Better Choice
Feel the fear and take action anyway. Say, “I’d like to give that the attention it deserves. Could we meet tomorrow at 10:00 to discuss it?”

If you tend to yield during conflict:

Unhelpful Behavior
Compromising your values
Better Choice
Stand up for yourself by using “I” statements. “I’m not comfortable with that course of action. Could we discuss alternatives?”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Not voicing disagreement
Better Choice
Prepare for difficult conversations by planning how you can state your needs and wants. Use words like, “I’m not sure that’s the right direction. Can I take a moment to explain?”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Letting others take credit for your work
Better Choice
Take credit for your own work. “I worked late last night to have those charts ready for this morning.”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Responding with neutral words like, “I don’t care. Whatever you want is fine with me.”
Better Choice
State a preference. “What I’d prefer is…” or “The direction I’d like to go is…”

If you hide your emotions during conflict:

Unhelpful Behavior
Being vague, cryptic, or unclear in your communication; using one-word or short answers like, “Fine,” or “I don’t know.”
Better Choice
Force yourself to say what you’re thinking and feeling. Ask the person to repeat what he thinks you said until you are both on the same page.
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Stating pleasant emotions with your words while acting out unpleasant emotions with your body language
Better Choice
Match your words to your body language. If you’re rolling your eyes, no one believes it when you say, “That’s a great idea.”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Not acknowledging your true feelings, even to yourself
Better Choice
Check in with yourself. What are the sensations in your body? Which feelings do they indicate? If you’re not sure, ask for some time to process and set a time to meet.

If you tend to self-criticize after conflict:

Unhelpful Behavior
Overanalyzing your own actions
Better Choice
Seek feedback from trusted co-workers and friends. Compare your self-appraisal with their opinions.
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Beating yourself up; saying things like, “I just can’t ever do anything right.”
Better Choice
Don’t associate your self-image with the conflict. Stop taking it personally. Say, ”I’m a work in progress, and that’s enough for today.”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Revisiting past conflicts too frequently
Better Choice
Tell yourself that you can’t resolve any conflict “perfectly.” The past is over. Let it go.
 
For all conflict-avoiders: Practice explaining your emotional state in an informative and professional way that casts no blame. Remind yourself that how you feel is important to the conflict-resolution process. For more information on constructive responses to conflict, read my blog posts here and here.

What Would Shawn Do? How to Handle Facebook Snarking

Q:

I am a receptionist in a busy clinic, and one of our technicians has been making comments and sharing quotes on Facebook that seem directed at me. She doesn’t mention me or the clinic by name, but I’m sure she’s talking about me. I’m usually very even-tempered, but this is pushing me to my limits. What should I do?Facebook Eye Roll

A:

First, question your assumptions. Unless she named you or a specific incident that only you were involved in, you don’t know for sure that she’s talking about you. It’s really easy to personalize people’s online behavior, but you need to allow for the possibility that there is an alternate explanation.

Second, don’t fan the flame. Facebook conversations are public, and the fallout from a passive-aggressive word war isn’t worth it. If her remarks really are directed at you, and she’s hoping you’ll notice, the fire will die out much more quickly if you simply ignore them.

Lastly, work on the relationship. Try communicating with her directly about any problems between you, without mentioning the Facebook posts. Be a good listener, and ask questions to get to the root causes of the problems so that you can work together to solve them.

If she ever does name you, or posts negative comments that are specific to your role or the clinic, take a screen shot and report her to the practice manager or owner immediately. Online bullying is completely unacceptable and is harmful to you and the clinic.

How to NOT Play Fair: Destructive Responses to Conflict

In previous posts I talked about constructive ways to respond to conflict at work. Of course, there are destructive ways to handle conflict as well, but I wanted to focus on what TO do first, rather than what NOT to do.

When faced with conflict, here’s what NOT to do: yell, throw stuff, use a sarcastic tone, hide your emotions, or run away. Destructive conflict tactics may be the only ones you’ve learned, but they break down relationships instead of building them up. It’s important to recognize destructive conflict tactics and avoid them at all costs.

 Active Destructive Responses

Just like your constructive responses to conflict are classified as active or passive, destructive responses can be active or passive as well. Active destructive responses to conflict, which are often described as “fight,” include:

  • Winning at all costs
  • Aggressively displaying anger
  • Demeaning others
  • Retaliating

If you engage in these dysfunctional behaviors, you are effectively showing your team that you are not a team player. Active destructive responses prolong and escalate the conflict. You also alienate other people, cause resentment, and erode trust.

Winning at all costs is defined as:

  • Holding on tenaciously to your ideas and suggestions
  • Blaming others or making excuses for your poor behavior
  • Rationalizing your ideas or behavior, even when you know better

Example of what NOT to say: “This is your problem. If you don’t like the way I’m acting, I suggest you stop annoying me by constantly complaining about every little thing!”

Aggressively displaying anger looks like this:

  • Raising your voice
  • Using harsh words
  • Lashing out with hostile outbursts or throwing a tantrum

Example of what NOT to say: “You are the most irresponsible person I know. I should have learned by now, if I want something done right I have to do it myself.”

Demeaning others means:

  • Being sarcastic
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Speaking in a contemptuous, sneering manner

Example of what NOT to say: “I know this will be difficult for you, but could you think of someone besides yourself for a change?”

Retaliating behaviors are:

  • Giving the other person a taste of their own medicine
  • Sabotaging
  • Lying; pretending things are fine so you can set your trap
  • One-upping the other person
  • Using your power to create consequences unrelated to the crime

Example of what NOT to say: “How did that feel? I bet you didn’t like it, did you? Well, neither did I, when you did it to me.”

Passive Destructive Responses

Passive destructive responses to conflict, which are often called “flight,” include:

  • Avoiding
  • Yielding
  • Hiding emotions
  • Self-criticizing

People who withdraw in response to conflict often make the mistake of thinking they aren’t guilty of acting aggressive because they don’t display “fight” behaviors. Sorry, you’re not off the hook. Passive destructive responses–which are more commonly exhibited by introverts–are just as damaging to your work relationships.

Avoiding is defined as:

  • Changing the subject or dodging questions
  • Refusing to make eye contact
  • Going out of your way to avoid interactions

Example of what NOT to do: I’ll pretend to be really busy so she won’t come in and ask me about the pay increase again.

Yielding looks like:

  • Compromising your values
  • Not voicing disagreement
  • Letting others take credit for your work

Example of what NOT to say: “I don’t care. Whatever you want is fine with me.”

Hiding emotions means:

  • Being vague, cryptic, or unclear in your communication
  • Using words to state pleasant emotions while acting out unpleasant emotions with your body language
  • Not acknowledging your feelings, even to yourself

Example of what NOT to say: “I am fine,” or “Everything is fine.”

Self-criticizing behaviors are:

  • Over-analyzing your own actions
  • Beating yourself up
  • Revisiting past conflicts too frequently

Example of what NOT to say: “I just can’t ever do anything right.” 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Not only do you need to avoid the bad behaviors, you have to learn and practice the good ones. In past issues of my newsletter, I provided tips for responding positively to conflict. Changing your conflict-response habits takes time, but with some practice, you will get better at engaging in conflict productively. When you do, you will be more in control of both yourself and the outcomes of your interactions with others.

You can’t change anyone else, but you can influence other people’s behavior by taking the high road and responding to conflict constructively and skillfully.

How to be Constructive During Conflict, Part 2

In Part 1, we talked about how to stay constructive during conflict by using active responses, like reaching out, taking the other person’s perspective, expressing your emotions, and working together to create solutions.

But what to do when you don’t feel comfortable with the active constructive conflict responses? Maybe you’re more the quiet type. Maybe you’re an extrovert, but you tend to withdraw when someone pushes your buttons. Let’s acknowledge it: Some people need more time and space to think through and process conflict than others. If this sounds like you, try the passive constructive approaches. There’s no need to take on every conflict head on!

swimming pool
Passive constructive responses include reflective thinking, delaying responding, and adapting. Here are some tips for each of these types of responses:

Reflective Thinking

  • Analyze the situation.
  • Notice your own reactions and the reactions of others.
  • Be aware of the impact of the conflict on yourself and all other parties involved.
  • Avoid hasty and unplanned responses.
  • Think about the best response before proceeding.

How does Shawn recommend incorporating reflective thinking into your response?

Ask the other parties for a half-hour break while you think things through.

Break down the conflict into smaller and more manageable pieces.

Delaying Responding

  • Wait things out to let matters settle down.
  • Take a time out when emotions are running high.
  • Cool down to regain emotional balance.
  • Slow down-with your speech and movements-or walk away.
  • Be accountable and committed to come back and engage with the conflict.

How does Shawn recommend incorporating delaying responding into your response?

Say, “I’m feeling triggered and need a few minutes to regain my composure.”

Say, “Let’s slow things down a bit. I’d like to walk through all of those facts again.”

Adapting

  • Be flexible and try to make the best of the situation.
  • Keep an optimistic mindset.
  • View conflict as an inevitable part of the workplace (and life in general).
  • Be willing to entertain a wide variety of alternatives for resolution.
  • Become aware of changes or opportunities that signal the potential for problem-solving.

How does Shawn recommend incorporating adapting behaviors into your response?

Think thoughts that lead you toward adapting and accepting, like:

“I will be positive and expect things to turn out well.”

“I am willing to compromise.”

As a business leader, whether you prefer an active or passive conflict style, you must respect the diversity of your team. Some people may prefer different strategies for dealing with conflict than you do.

The important thing is for everyone in your practice to take responsibility for dealing with conflict, rather than avoiding it. You want a culture where people are willing to bring conflict out into the open and move forward. Otherwise, conflict destroys trust and relationships.

So, keep holding people accountable for dealing with conflict and teach your team about passive constructive responses as well as the active constructive ones. Encourage people to use the strategies that work best for them.

Remember, conflict competence is a choice, and you DO have the power to change!

What Would Shawn Do: Planning Ahead for a Difficult Conversation

handling conflict

Q:

I just can’t seem to get along with one of my co-workers. We’ve had several disagreements over the past year. Now she just complains to the boss instead of trying to work things out. What can I do to resolve this uncomfortable relationship?

A:

This is a great time to work on your communication skills!

Take this three-step approach:

1.       Think about your past disagreements.

What was the cause? How did you contribute to the conflict? What factors contributed to the confrontation? What did you say that seemed to get a positive response? What did you say that seemed to make things worse?

2.       Plan your conversation.

Think about an appropriate time and place. Find an opening that will help your co-worker feel like you are willing to listen to their side of the issue. Be ready to admit your part in the problem. Be open to hearing what your co-worker is saying, even repeating their thoughts back to them to be sure you understand.

3.       Visualize your conversation.

Practice what you’ll say and how your co-worker might respond. What do you think will be a positive outcome? If you can’t make any headway, what will you do next?

Thinking through all of your past arguments, what caused them, what you contributed, what you could do better, and visualizing what will happen when you confront your co-worker can only help you be more aware and less reactive.

Good luck!